Bad news people – Qi is not mystical


woman holding eye and concentrating

Magic? Or something else…

I read this in a blog post today:

“I remember one time when a student was showing a qigong posture she was taught from another teacher and spoke about how qi circulated through it. He adjusted her posture slightly and said “now you have qi circulation”. “

From here. 

When you read something like this I think it reinforces the incorrect idea that Qi is some type of etheric, mystical energy that rises in our bodies like steam and can be directed by the mind… (in fact, that’s what the article goes on to talk about)

Well, frankly, it isn’t. At least in the context of martial arts, it isn’t. Acupuncturists probably have a different opinion on that, but I’m not talking about acupuncture.

But at the same time, if you know what is meant by “Qi” (through your practical understanding) then that original sentence I quoted above does make sense. Let me explain.

You’ve got to remember that when a Chinese teacher talks about Qi in terms of martial arts, what they are talking about is related to your physical structure. The stuff that makes you up. Skin, bones, tissue, muscles, etc…

If you have “strong Qi” then it means you are physically strong. So, for example, a strong athletic young guy or gal would be described as somebody with “strong chi”. Usually, the posture is good, the eyes bright, the hair shiny, etc… These are all aspects of “strong Qi”.

A weak slumped, tired, or sick-looking person would be described as having “weak Qi”.

man old depressed headache

You, my friend, have “weak Qi”.

So, an old person could have either “strong chi” or “weak chi” depending on how they presented themselves. If you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you’re doing well. Your Qi is strong.

close up photo of blue peacock

Strong Qi, or BDE as the Yooth say today…

In Tai Chi your Qi refers to your physical structure in a movement, as well as a special type of conditioning of the body’s structures that takes place through exercises like Standing Post and Silk Reeling. Through these exercises, you can strengthen the felt connection from your fingers to your toes – a kind of all-over body suit. It’s the strengthening of this ‘body suit’ that explains the circus-style feats of strength you see martial arts groups demonstrating. Things like throwing a needle through glass, bending a spear on your neck, being resistant to blades and breaking rocks with your hands.


I would not suggest trying these things at home! Sure, there are often ways to fake feats like the ones above, but there are also ways to do it correctly, utilising the conditioning of the body’s Qi.

Martial arts techniques in Tai Chi require two things – Qi and Jin. Here we’re only talking about Qi. I’ve talked about Jin before.

Qi (Chi) relates to structure. So, if you adopt a Tai Chi posture that’s relaxed, sunk, stable and strong (i.e. your structure is good), then you are “using your Qi well”. And it could be said the “Qi is circulating well”. (Actually, nothing is circulating in the sense of water in a pipe). If your structure is off in some way then it could be said that your “chi is not circulating well”.

So, if we read that quote again, with the new knowledge that it is to do with posture and structure:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have qi circulation”. 

Could equally be written:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have better structure”.

So, to me that means, he corrected some defect in her posture (say an overly tense lower back, or tense shoulders, for example), so that her “Qi” started to circulate – i.e. the posture regained its natural strength.

Sorry guys, but none of this has anything to do with steam or heat or a mystical energy in the body. But it’s so easy to assume that this is what is meant when you read quotes like the one above.

Especially once you add to that the fact that people can feel pretty much anything they can imagine. 



5 thoughts on “Bad news people – Qi is not mystical

  1. Thanks for sharing 🙂 I have been practicing Yang Tai Chi for a year now and I think that Chi could be construed as both a physcial stance as you said, as well as life energy. My understanding is that the concept of Chi is actually used in various forms of Chinese medicine practices and that is why the word itself, out of the Tai Chi context, means energy. I agree with you that in Tai Chi though correct posture is crucial to directing this energy. I just wrote a blog about Tai Chi (from my humble inexpert opinion about it) and would love to hear your thoughts about it.

  2. David –

    1. Yes you did! Not to labour the point, but this is the first line of your article:

    “In the last post I wrote about the concept of Qi I said that I am not the greatest believer in what this energy can actually do. ”

    “Energy” – it’s right there. Do I believe you or my lying eyes?

    2: Parlour tricks:

    Like I said in the article – those things can be done by cheating (using tricks) or properly by conditioning. For example, if you watch the throwing of a needle through the glass – look at the way the Shaolin guy throws it and then look at the way the normal guy throws it – totally different method. That’s a well-conditioned “qi” suit in action. It’s not magic – it’s just training. A “parlour trick” version would be to use false materials in some way, or just fake the whole thing with smoke and mirrors.

  3. Well, I didn’t. With lack of better words I said “inner steam” as I usually call it, or heat, when I refer to that the body warms up pretty well with correct practice (correct relaxation together with correct structure, opening the joints). But I get you, I’ll need to be more careful.
    Oh, BTW, I do agree with your general points but still don’t agree with everything… Those Shaolin parlour tricks for example… You don’t need to develop any developed suit for them or anything else and that so called “needle” doesn’t penetrate the glass at all. They are just tricks, anyone can learn many of the those Shaolin tricks quickly and any well trained person can do the rest.

  4. Hi David, I think I got the wrong end of the stick after you said Qi was an “energy” right at the start of your article. Sorry about that. Glad you liked my article anyway, and at least it inspired me to write it 🙂

  5. If you had followed the blog you would know that I’ve never ever claimed that Qi is something mystical or magic or that the internal sensations are about anything else than the body getting warm. I’ve only said that if you relax properly, (mind and body,) you will get warm, and that if you keep the same body state you’ll get warmer. I am sure that your body would get warm if you spent enough time practicing the long form. This is the heat or steam that is what is meant with the concept of qi in Tai Chi practice. If you can get up the heat fast you will know that you are good at relaxing and that you have the correct body structure, so the internal sensations can be a good measurement on how well you move according to a correct outer structure, for example a six harmony coordination. So the concept of qi is more a way to measure that you do things correct than anything else. What we call Jin is the external expression of doing the same things correct. I do agree with everything you write, yes having Qi means more or less the same as having a correct body structure. I would still like to add that in Tai Chi specifically the outer shape without correct breathing and a calm mind is considered an empty shell. It’s not all about the outside. The mind must still be there. Yes it’s easy to assume things when quotes are taken out of context. Thanks, I enjoyed reading your post.

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